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How much is too much and how often is too often?

Alcohol consumption guidelines

Nicole Pankratz

Reprinted from "Alcohol" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 2 (9), p. 7-8

Alcohol plays a role in the way many people deal with dilemmas and celebrate successes. Whether it’s drinks with co-workers after a hard week on the job site or a bottle of wine with a spouse to mark a year of marital bliss, alcohol seems to be one of the first things British Columbians cling to when sailing through the sometimes stormy, sometimes serene seas of life.

Most alcohol consumers in BC drink what they believe is a casual or moderate amount of alcohol. They don’t classify themselves as alcohol dependent and don’t believe they pose any significant health or harm risks to themselves or others.

The fact is, however, that half of all alcohol-related harms in the province are caused by casual or moderate drinkers: the types who go on the occasional bender and end the night in a bloody punch-up, or the kind who have one too many cocktails at a family function and then try driving home. Sometimes casual drinkers let so loose at a party they lose all concept of safe sex. And there are others who drink a moderate amount of alcohol every day, slowly pickling their insides without knowing it.

Figuring out how much is too much, or how often is too often, can be difficult for people who like to drink. But it’s worth the effort, especially since some consumers may have a problem with alcohol without knowing it. Similarly, some may know they drink more than they should but don’t know how—or how much—to cut down.

Tools are available to help people understand alcohol use patterns, one of them being BC’s low-risk drinking guidelines. Developed by the Centre for Addictions Research of BC (CARBC), these guidelines are meant to help alcohol consumers reduce the risk of causing alcohol-related harm to themselves and others.

Low-risk drinking guidelines

Avoid intoxication
  • Limit your evening’s alcohol intake. For men, this means drinking no more than four standard drinks, and for women three drinks. Consume less than these amounts if you are lower than average weight, elderly or below the legal drinking age.

  • Drink slowly. Men of average weight should drink no more than two drinks in the first hour, while women should stick with one. From then on, both men and women should consume only one drink per hour.

  • Combine alcohol with food and alternate alcohol drinks with non-alcoholic beverages.

Choose abstinence in situations where “no alcohol” is the most sensible option
  • When operating vehicles, such as automobiles, all- terrain vehicles, snowmobiles and bicycles

  • When alertness is important, such as while working with machinery or participating in physical activities.

  • When using other substances, including medications such as sleeping pills or pain killers

  • When trying to conceive, pregnant or breastfeeding

  • When trying to manage serious alcohol dependence

  • When there is a family history of serious drinking problems

  • When suffering from mental health problems or other health issues, such as liver disease

Put limits on your drinking frequency and amounts
  • Limit your weekly intake to 20 drinks or fewer for men, and 10 or fewer for women

  • Build non-drinking days into your week, especially if drinking to the maximum daily amount (the more often you drink to the daily maximum, the more alcohol-free days you need to have to avoid going over the weekly maximum)

Know the facts about alcohol’s contribution to heart health
  • Only older individuals—men 40 and over, and women 45 and over—benefit from light drinking. Small increases in the risk of some cancers begin from just one drink a day, meaning the heart benefits of light drinking do not come without a price

  • The protective effect of alcohol can be achieved with as little as one drink every other day, while the maximum heart health benefits can be obtained by drinking two standard drinks a day in the case of men, and one drink a day for a women

  • Red wine is not the only alcoholic beverage that provides cardiovascular benefits. All alcoholic drinks contain ethanol, the substance responsible for improved cardiovascular health. While having a drink or two has a place in a healthy lifestyle, alcohol use can also lead to death in more than 50 different ways—in the short term and over the long term—and results in over 6,000 premature deaths in Canada each year.

    If you or someone you know is repeatedly drinking beyond these low-risk guidelines, consider getting help

     
    About the Author

    Nicole is Publications Officer in the Communication and Resource Unit of the Centre for Addictions Research of BC (CARBC). CARBC is a University of Victoriabased centre dedicated to research and knowledge exchange on substance use, harm reduction and addiction

    Footnotes
    1. Centre for Addictions Research of BC. (2006). Low-risk drinking guidelines. Retrieved from the CARBC Substance Information Link website at www.silink.ca

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